The cover tells you what you need to know about ‘His Bloody Project’. It’s gruesome, visceral and immediately intriguing. Once you get past the red, smudged splatters and fingerprints, you see there’s a subtitle, the book is really called ‘His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.’ Playful name games aside, this is a heading to fill a classic book lover’s heart with delight. There are times when I really think that all horror and crime books should be presented as documentary evidence with the author masquerading as the editor. It worked for ‘Dracula’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’; it worked for Conan Doyle and it worked for Poe. Burnet’s Booker long-listed novel shows the convention is still going strong.
‘His Bloody Project’ relishes its literary tradition, from the beautifully dated language to the tone of the editor, who tells us at the start of the preface ‘It is not my intention to unduly detain the reader, but a few prefatory remarks may provide a little context to the material collected here. Those readers who prefer to proceed directly to the documents themselves are of course free to do so.‘ The self-conscious editor is a joy whenever he appears, but most of the book is taken up with other voices, giving a wonderfully textured view of crime, law and everyday life in the nineteenth-century Highlands.
The main ‘document’ in the novel is the memoir of Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter who opens his writings by telling his audience ‘I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed.‘ For all that this book has been labeled as a crime story, there is never any question about who-dunnit or how-dunnit; the memoir and the accompanying eye-witness testimony all agree. Fortunately, none of this affects the tension and drama of the story. Roderick Macrae’s memoir is a wonderful account of a specific region at a specific historical moment. There is a gothic isolation and barbarity in his narrative, thrown into sharp relief when more cosmopolitan voices show their own mid-Victorian views on the ‘primitive’ ‘squalor’ of this traditional way of life. Culduie, home to the Macraes for generations, is a feudal agricultural community, untouched by the modernising industrialism booming across Britain at the time. Questions of Roderick’s guilt are tied up in an understanding of entrenched power structures; when the journalists discuss the trial ‘Only John Murdoch departed from the notion that the verdict was a foregone conclusion. His southern colleagues, he explained, overlooked the empathy the jurymen might feel towards an ill-used crofter. The resentment caused by centuries’ ill treatment of the Highlander was keenly felt, and in Roderick Macrae, they might see an individual who had revolted against the vindictiveness of the powers-that-be.’
There are (many) times when genre labels are unhelpful; if ‘His Bloody Project’ is a traditional crime novel in its framing and structure, it is an ambitious literary novel in its exploration of crime and punishment. Like Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ this is not a book that seeks clear resolution, but a novel that delves into questions of truth, madness and justice. The irony of the collection of ‘documents’ is that it leaves so many gaps; the stories told are so similar that any small disparity stands out with frightening significance. Burnet is far more interested in building a forgotten world and filling it with uncomfortably familiar figures than with simple questions of right or wrong, good or evil. His novel is ambitious, funny and shocking, everything the cover promised.
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